While seven decades of Israeli statehood never did fulfill the secular Zionist dream of creating a nation like all others, even the gedolim of the time recognized the call of the hour. And while the Chazon Ish’s prediction that the state was fated to suffer “the sword from without, and machlokes from within” has been fulfilled, who could have imagined that Torah would soon begin to take its rightful place?

As the State of Israel celebrates 70 years of independence, this significant number calls for contemplation and cheshbon nefesh.

Despite all the changes from its founding until today — or perhaps because of all those changes — there is still the problematic core ideology upon which the State of Israel rests: the Zionist concept that a political state for the Jews is the solution to the problem of Jewish suffering in exile. Just bring the Jews back from their abnormal existence in dispersion among the nations and they will become a regular nation, tolerated like every other country. Indeed, the State of Israel has made tremendous achievements by nearly all measures of worldly success, which Israeli media have been praising to the skies for the past several weeks. In certain fields, this little country has in fact become a world leader.

Yet is that the true secret of our survival? Gedolei Yisrael of recent times, before the founding of the State and after it, fought vigorously against the secular Zionist idea that a state would effectively redeem the Jewish People, and they viewed this idea as a threat to our continued existence. There is no difference between mass assimilation of Jews scattered over the globe, and collective assimilation here in our own land, in a state whose foundation is not built on Torah, but a Jewish state that, in its 70th year, is still ruled by a body of law borrowed from the nations; a Jewish state where many in power seek to uproot public Shabbos observance as a way of flaunting their liberal credentials; a state where the whole experience of being a citizen is not a Jewish experience, despite its loud claims of being a Jewish and democratic state. Democratic, maybe. Jewish, certainly not, even though most of the people living here are traditional and wish to retain their Jewish identity. But the traditional majority has only a limited influence on the decidedly secular system that seeks to impose its un-Jewish agenda on the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, our great Torah leaders saw nuances in the reality of the Jewish State that came to be in 1948. Although the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the Chazon Ish, and many other gedolim of Torah and chassidus were against the establishment of a secular Zionist state in the Land of Israel and believed it was an existential threat to the Jewish People, it is interesting to note what they said in real time about the events that unfolded with the end of the British Mandate.

After the formation of the state, the Chazon Ish said that although it was a chillul Hashem because it was founded on kefirah, the alternative at that point in history — had David Ben-Gurion not declared independence — was likely to have been destruction of the Jewish yishuv in Eretz Yisrael by the armies of the Arab nations. Thus, the formation of the state was necessitated by the facts on the ground. The Chazon Ish added, however, that the state was fated to suffer “the sword from without, and machlokes from within.” This was no more than a sad prediction of the inevitable, although one secular writer attempted to denigrate the Chazon Ish by claiming it was a curse.

However, the Chazon Ish’s opposition to Zionism and the founding of a secular state was completely unconnected to his concern for the Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisrael. He never suggested that Jews should leave the country or not come to live in Eretz Yisrael because the Zionist regime was in control. And when the Satmar Rebbe cited the Rambam’s statement that a person must flee to the wilderness rather than live in a place inhabited by wicked people, the Chazon Ish replied, “The batei medrash and the yeshivos are the wildernesses to which we flee.”

When Ben-Gurion was determined to conscript frum girls into the army and the Chazon Ish went to war against that vile design, tensions were running high in Israel, and some columnists in the chareidi press were even suggesting that Torah Jews might have no choice but to leave the country. But that was far from the Chazon Ish’s thoughts. On the contrary, when asked if this was the wrong time to make aliyah, he answered that nothing had occurred that should prevent anyone from coming to live in the Holy Land.

One time Rav Menachem Kasher was visiting the Chazon Ish and told him he’d just been on a tour of the entire country. “And did you see,” asked the Chazon Ish, whose fight against the anti-religious decrees of the time ravaged his health, “how Calev and Yehoshua were right, that the Land is ‘very, very good?’”

With the fall of the British Mandate and the rise of a Jewish state apparently in the making, Rav Yosef Kahaneman spoke enthusiastically to his talmidim in Yeshivas Ponevezh about the new developments. He, too, saw the declaration of a Jewish State as the need of the hour. Additionally, the strength of chareidi Jewry at that time was ebbing, its youth drawn into the underground movements fighting the British, or into the fervor for agricultural conquest. The Ponevezher Rav foresaw that if a state were to be founded, this nationalistic zeal would settle down and the young men would come back to the yeshivos.

I once heard the following from an askan from Eretz Yisrael who traveled to Europe in 1937 to take part in the Knessiah HaGedolah of Agudath Israel in Marienbad. One of the most hotly debated topics at that convention was the movement toward the founding of a Zionist state in Eretz Yisrael, in light of the recommendation by the Peel Commission to end the Mandate, partition Palestine, and allow the Jews to establish an independent state. Should Agudah support and take part in this initiative? One of the most vigorous opponents was Rav Elchanan Wasserman, who argued in no uncertain terms that a Zionist state would be no Jewish state at all.

After the stormy debate of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the great rav of Kovno, Rav Avraham Shapiro, author of Dvar Avraham, approached Rav Elchanan and asked him, “Reb Elchanan, if a man says to a woman, “Harei at mekudeshes li — you are hereby betrothed to me, on condition that a Jewish state shall be formed in Eretz Yisrael,” and then a Zionist state is formed instead, would this be considered a Jewish state and hence would the woman be betrothed?” Rav Elchanan paused to think for a moment and answered, “That really is a sh’eilah.” The Dvar Avraham went on to say, “Reb Elchanan, for one woman this is a legitimate sh’eilah, and for the possibility of saving hundreds of thousands of Jews, it’s not a sh’eilah?” For Hitler was already in power, and the Jews of Germany were looking for an escape route from the catastrophe they saw coming.

SEVENTY YEARS HAVE PASSED, and the position taken by the Chazon Ish has proven itself. He determined that the struggl/e against Zionism would not be fought through aggressive confrontation, but through turning up the lights — increasing the light of Torah study on all levels. The war would be won only by founding another yeshivah, another Talmud Torah, by rooting the Torah firmly among the populace.

And although my generation faced nisyonos that today’s youth could not even conceive of, the revolution led by the Chazon Ish was victorious. My memories of those early days are not so rosy. The chareidi community was scorned. The socialist labor parties ruled with an iron hand, and forced thousands of Jews to give up Torah observance. Yeshivah students were few in number, and they were denied civil rights. Many young chareidim left the fold.

But little by little, things have turned around. Today, as the State of Israel marks its 70th anniversary, Torah learning is flourishing, and we’re witnessing a teshuvah movement that I couldn’t have dreamed of. Even the most left-wing, anti-religious kibbutzim have changed direction in recent years. Many of them have built shuls, and some of those shuls even have regular minyanim. And while the militant secularists move farther away than ever from their Jewish roots, many others among the silent majority are returning home.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 706)